A Tingling Spine Every Time

Some of classical music’s most sublime moments

Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Flickr/Thomas Hawk

No matter how many times I’ve heard them, certain pieces of music—rather, certain moments in those pieces—never fail to give me the chills, whether by eliciting awe, fright, or a feeling of otherworldly bliss. Here are nine of my favorites:

1. There are great recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 135, and then there are transcendent ones. In the Busch Quartet’s version, the last 12 measures of the slow movement sound like a measured yet ecstatic ascent to some glorious realm, followed by a gentle, soothing descent in the final notes.

2. Even though you know it’s coming, the organ’s entrance in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, is an earth-shaker: a glorious, ringing, thunderous chord in C major.

3. The Adagio of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is probably my favorite movement of my favorite symphony—a work of preternatural, celestial calm. The climax, especially, is wondrous to behold.

4. In the opening of Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the Op. 111, a low rumbling in the left hand leads to the thunderous declaration of the Allegro. It’s the sonic equivalent of staring into the abyss.

5. Franz Schubert’s song Erlkönig, is based on a ballad by Goethe that depicts a deliriously ill boy assailed by a demonic fairy-king. Perfect for a dark and turbulent night.

6. The last movement of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony is a heartrending, slow burn of an essay expressing the glories of nature and the human spirit. It culminates in some of the most overwhelming, beautiful, and spiritual pages the composer ever wrote.

7. Is there a more moving moment in opera than the trio that appears near the end of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with the Marschallin, Sophie, and Octavian singing of love, renunciation, heroism, sympathy, and selflessness?

8. Again, I’m thinking of a particular recording of a particular work, in this case Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1952 recording of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic. In the driven, tumultuous last movement, the music hurtles furiously to the end—a thrill ride for the ages.

9. Near the end of Mahler’s sprawling Second Symphony, the chorus and soprano soloist join the orchestra, singing at full throttle (marked fff in the score):

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!

(Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!)

This moment, toward which the entire symphony has been heading, gives me shivers every time.

What works of classical music never fail to give you the chills? Let us know in the comments below.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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